Individual Selflessness

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Mipham Rinpoche

Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso

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Individual Selflessness

by Mipham Rinpoche

That which we label as the agent of our actions or the experiencer of happiness and suffering, and which we assume to be the self, the individual, the agent and so on, is actually nothing more than a presumption of selfhood, made on the basis of the five aggregates. When we examine this with wisdom, we do not find any intrinsic ‘individual self’ either as identical to, or distinct from, the aggregates.

If the self were identical to the aggregates, it would follow that, as there are different aggregates, there must also be multiple selves. If the self were form—one of the aggregates—it would follow that there must be as many selves as there are subtle particles. Similarly for the other aggregates of feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness, since they are all multiple by nature, logic dictates that the self would likewise be multiple. The five aggregates arise from causes and do not remain for more than a single moment, so the self too would be impermanent. In short, the aggregates, composed, as they are, of many subtle particles and aspects of the shortest possible duration, are not the self.

If there were an independent self distinct from the five aggregates, it should be observable, but since no such self can be observed, we must deny its existence. Were there a self transcending the conditioned aggregates, it would not have the characteristics required to perform actions or to experience happiness and suffering, and so on; rather, it would be unconditioned, like space, beyond either benefit or harm.

The followers of the Vātsīputrīya school claim that there is a self, but that it cannot be described in any way, either as identical to or distinct from the aggregates, either as permanent or impermanent, and so on, but this too is illogical. When we analyze this position rationally we can see that it is not possible for a thing which does not fall into either of these categories to exist as something functional and real, because anything that really exists must fall into one category or the other, and it is quite impossible that something could exist as a functional entity yet avoid these two and belong to some third category.

Form, therefore, is not the self. Nor do form and the self have a relationship of possession, with one belonging to the other. The self does not reside in form, and form does not reside in the self. By applying the same principle to sensations and the other aggregates, we arrive at a total of twenty—the so-called ‘twenty peaks of the mountain of belief in the transitory collection’. Since these are all acquired beliefs based on a fundamental, instinctive self-clinging, as soon as the belief in the transitory collection is shattered through vajra-like wisdom, they will all be simultaneously destroyed.

Moreover, on this basis of the fundamental belief in the transitory collection, there are also the sixty-two types of wrong view related to the past, present and future, which are mentioned in the Sūtra of Brahmā’s Net. Then there are all the different suppositions about the features of the self—that it is permanent, unitary, in control, pervasive, and so on. There is also the belief that, just as we can infer the presence of a potter by seeing the articles of his trade, such as the materials for a vase, the wheel and the stick, we can infer the presence of the self by seeing all the things, such as bedding, food and clothing, which cater to its needs. Then there is the supposed refutation of selflessness that says that without a self all the exertions of the spiritual path would be meaningless, because there would be no one to profit from them. All such statements by non-buddhist philosophers who propound the existence of a self are entirely devoid of merit, because in the absence of a self, it is inappropriate to speak of its features or its proofs.

If the self were permanent, there could not possibly be distinct occasions for performing an action and experiencing [its result], or distinct occasions of happiness and suffering, elation and depression, purity and impurity, and so on.

If the self were unitary, it could not be possibly have a variety of features.

If the self were independent and fully in control, it could not possibly be impermanent or subject to even the slightest unwanted circumstance.

If the self were all-pervasive, it would be illogical for something possessing everything all at once to experience ephemeral changes or distinctions, such as being separated from friends, being self and other, performing virtuous and non-virtuous actions, and so on.

Given that the nature of the self is never observed through any validating cognition, we cannot admit any evidence such as seeing things which supposedly bring about its benefit, just as we can not speak of the clothes of a barren woman’s son.

The question might arise, “Are not bedding and such like taken for the sake of the self?” To this, we must reply that even though the self does not exist, they are taken in order to benefit the collection and continuation of the aggregates.

If the self existed, the path to liberation would be impossible, because any system that professes belief in a self can not include a path for eliminating attachment to the self. If our attachment to self is not eliminated, our attachment to ‘mine’ will ensure that we never part from our clinging to the three realms, and it will therefore be impossible for us to find a means to gain freedom from samsara.

There is liberation however for the proponents of selflessness, because they have turned away from these forms of attachment, and without any rejecting or adopting, they can attain the nirvāṇa that is free from attachment to the three realms. Securing benefit and avoiding harm is not done because the self exists, but because we posit an agent or an experiencer (and so on) on the basis of the continuity of aggregates, although they are themselves devoid of such a self.

The label ‘chariot’, for example, is applied to a collection of parts. The chariot is not identical to its wheels or other parts, yet nor is it completely separate from them. Therefore, the parts and the possessor of these parts do not belong to one another. The possessor of the parts does not reside within the parts, and the parts, such as the wheels and so on, do not reside within the chariot that possesses them. The collection of parts and the shape of this collection do not have the slightest existence in their own right, separate from the parts themselves. When we analyze it in these seven ways, we can not observe any actual chariot that is in possession of its parts. Instead, we find that it is merely a designation, applied on the basis of its own components. When we analyze the self in the same way, using these seven lines of reasoning to see how the self is designated on the basis of the aggregates, we come to understand that it does not exist.

A sūtra says:[1]

Do you think, O Māra, that there is a "being"?
You are under the spell of beliefs.
These conditioned aggregates are empty,
And contain no living being.

Just as a chariot is spoken of
In reference to a collection of parts,
It is on the basis of the aggregates,
That we speak conventionally of ‘beings’.

Taken from Mipham Rinpoche’s Gateway to Learning (mkhas 'jug).

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2008, with reference to a preliminary translation by Erik Pema Kunsang.

Version: 1.2-20220221


  1. Khenpo Nüden’s commentary gives the source of this quotation as the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. For more on these important verses of Sister Vajirā, which are also to be found in the Pāli Canon and in several Mahāyāna sources, see Matthew Kapstein, Reason's Traces, Wisdom Publications, 2001, page 78 and passim.  ↩

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